From a Coach Horse to a Therapy Horse
A few years ago I donated one of my coaching horses, Lee, to the local therapeutic riding facility. Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding (SDTR) is a relatively small farm, operating almost entirely with volunteers. They are PATH certified, meaning both their center and their instructors are accredited through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (thus the letters PATH) SDTR, a non-profit in Eastern Sussex County, Delaware, was established in 1988 in order to provide horseback therapy for children and adults with disabilities. Their mission is to improve the physical and emotional well being of children and adults in the lower half of Delaware.
Talking with Georgia Truitt, who runs the facility, I wasn’t surprised to hear that Lee was one of their favorite horses. As Lee will stand perfectly still at the loading ramp and hoist for as long as it takes to get a person from their wheelchair onto his big strong back. Because that is exactly what Lee had to do for me – stand patiently for as long as it took to hook the team of four to the coach or other large vehicle.
But what I have never been able to measure or put a name on is the TRUST and COMMUNICATION all of my horses have in me. For instance driving my coach back to the stables from The Winterthur Point to Point races in Wilmington, DE, I was almost finished with three beautiful days of driving when up ahead was Smith’s Covered Bridge. Covered bridges can be one of the spookiest situations for horses. As if a hilly road approaching the bridge wasn’t enough, there was a also a sharp curve just before the bridge. This would have been just enough to give the team of four a change to refuse, but brave Lee was in the lead and that wasn’t an issue. Next it was dark in the covered bridge and as my eyes tried to adjust to the change of light I could hardly see. However what I could see was sparks flying in the dark from the horse’s shod feet making contact with the large metal bolts holding the wooden plank floor of the bridge together. In addition to the smell of smoke from the sparks, there was quite a lot of noise from the metal wheels of the coach making contact with the plank floor. And then there was an oncoming car, in a hurry, of course. The horses never faltered and we were out of the bridge in no time.
Now comes the part that doesn’t have a name and cannot be measured by any means. I fractured my hip this fall and had hip replacement surgery recently. One of the people helping me during my recovery was a Physical Therapist named Steve Peet.
It’s hard to visit my home without seeing horses everywhere: they are in the pasture, there are pictures everywhere, and they are forever in my heart. Steve mentioned that he had a brother named Joey Peet, who has been riding at Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding for nine years. When the connection was made between Lee’s former career as a coach horse and his present job as a therapy horse, I started asking questions. What makes Joey Peet smile so big when he rides? Joey’s Mom, Sue, answered me.
Joey is nonverbal, but as you recognized in the photos people and horses do not need to verbally communicate with each other in order to provide a powerful connection with each other. Tom, Joey’s dad, and I always tell people you need to witness the horses work their magic with their riders. They are so patient, calm, supportive, and mostly very accepting to each and every rider despite their abilities, spastic movements, loud outbursts or various other personality traits they may have. I have had the privilege to watch not only my son, but many other people, both young and old, enjoy the horses and the benefits they have received from interacting and riding them.
Keith McDonald, the volunteer coordinator and himself a PATH Certified Riding Instructor at SDTR told me he had personally witnessed two different people speaking for the first time when riding at the facility when they had never spoken before. I think we all share something very special with horses.
We recently had a beautiful spring day right in the middle of winter, so I invited Joey, Sue, and Tom to my farm to meet one of my carriage horses and to have Joey try sitting in a carriage in anticipation of a spring carriage ride across the farm.
My carriages horses are not therapy horses and they have never had five minutes of therapy training, but I think they are very special. One in particular is especially laid back and really enjoys the crowds at big horse events and shows. When unsuspecting parents push their baby strollers too close to the team, Dundee (the laid back horse) can always manage to find some cheerios on the stroller tray and eat them – usually to the delight of the child in the baby stroller. So I thought he would be a good choice to meet Joey. Next we got Dundee out of the pasture away from his buddies. Horses are herd animals and do not like to be separated from their herd. Even though it’s a beautiful, unseasonably warm day, the wind is blowing terribly. And I had that same feeling I felt for a few minutes approaching that covered bridge, but Dundee was as calm as he could be and stood submissively, chewing while Joey petted and patted maybe a little too hard. But the amazing thing was they gazed into each other’s eyes and for a moment they appeared as one. I don’t know what they communicated to each other.
Sue tells me that Joey can only walk while mounted on his therapy horse as he has to have aides beside him to lend support if he needs it. But he’s always wanted to trot. And so that is the plan. As soon as my hip heals and the weather warms up, we’re going to take Joey out in the carriage with Dundee for a nice trot around the farm.
About the Author: Frances lives with her husband Wayne and eight horses on a farm outside of the beach community of Lewes, DE. When she’s not driving or showing her horses, the beach is her favorite place to be. In the off season she loves to drive her team along the ocean in the state park. Frances is a member of The World Coaching Club, The Four In Hand Club of Unionville, Pa, The Philadelphia Four In Hand Club, The CAA, The ADS and the Delmarva Driving Club.
More information is available on Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding at www.sdtrhr.com